The power of a researcher

In one of my earlier posts about the course on postmodernism I already made a reference to the way Ceglowski struggles with her power as a researcher. At that moment I did not yet completely understand what she meant with it, but now I’ve read some other texts, I thought it would be useful to come back to it.

As argued before, a relational constructionist would argue that we cannot make a clear distinction between the self and the other by arguing for instance that the researcher as subject needs to be completely separated from the object he studies to make sure that he gives an objective representation of reality. This type of subject-object relation would also hold a certain power relation: “to write a text and claim that it is ‘true’ or ‘factual’ can be seen as a particular practice of power, a power that claims that the researcher has the ability to unequivocally access and represent reality” (Rhodes & Brown, 2005, p. 477). People that are studied by a researcher could think his results are not in line with their ideas, but the subject can make the claim that he followed the right methods and is therefore not to be blamed for something he merely determined: “the ‘frightful’ claim that one does not need to take responsibility for what one writes because it is the ‘truth’, or the ‘meaning’ for which one is merely a communicative conduit or interpreter” (Rhodes & Brown, 2005, p. 479-480).

In contrast, from a relational constructionist perspective the researcher does not have power over the object as he does not try to represent the object. Instead, the self-other relationship is characterized by openness. One does not try to put the other in a premade framework, but tries to value “the “otherness” of the other” (Deetz, 2000, p. 133). The idea is that knowledge is constructed via relations: only together people can decide on what is true for them and what their local rationality is. It does not make sense to go in as an outsider, see what happens and then judge this from some theoretical standards as this will not result in knowledge about what is really going on. This changed self-other relationship results in a completely different power-balance. The self and the other are more equal and while the self first had power over the other, he now gives power to the other by being open to new rationalities. (Van der Haar & Hosking, 2004)

If you want to know more about this, I recommend the articles of Mead (2002), McNamee (2006) and Parent & Béliveau (2007). These offer good illustrations of the changing self-other relationship and power balance in a relational constructionist perspective. In his collaborative study on leadership, Mead (2002) explicitly positioned himself as a co-inquirer, not trying to impose his view or questions on the group. Moreover, he tried to create a safe environment in which people, apart from their hierarchical status, could say whatever they felt and wanted to share.

In her study of the curriculum and working style of a university department, McNamee (2006) also tried to make clear that her role as a researcher was different than what is normally expected: “During this introduction, I explained that my intention was not to evaluate their program and working style from my perspective but rather to invite them into a conversation with me about how best to evaluate their program and their working style as a group.” (p. 214).

As mentioned earlier, Parent & Béliveau (2007) describe the value and use of a learning history as a method to foster organizational learning. They argue that one of the qualities of a learning history is that it provides room for the feelings of everyone and “it shows them that their views count” (Parent & Béliveau, 2007, p. 75). The fact that their quotes are in the learning history document and that the interpretation of the researcher is also open for discussion, makes that a learning history is characterized by an equal power balance, instead of a researcher that has power over his object of study.

Update: if you like to read more about these cooperative ways of inquiry and the consequences of a new powerbalance, check out two of my new blogs: here and here

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9 Responses to The power of a researcher

  1. could we have the references you mention above – thanks

  2. power is relationally constructed… & (more or less blurred) subject-object (S-O) relations is one way of constructing (in this case) unequal power relations… which might be (as Tim says) – what is called for and what is (locally) supported & (locally) useful… but there are other possibilities – to shift away from S-O… these sorts of possibilties are under-explored – (& look very silly from a post positivist standpoint!) PomoRC directs attention to how power is constructed in ongoing relational processes & invites attention to/exploration of this…

  3. Lily says:

    Thanks for your new blog Robin. Quite interesting to read about the different way in which postmodern researchers relate to their object of study. It seems like from a positivist view they always tell you to stay objective to make you able to find out the truth, while from a postmodern perspective you rather have to try to understand and write down the different realities of people, as they are all true in some sense. I think it would be interesting to hear more about these research methods in upcoming blogs!

    • “…while from a postmodern perspective you rather have to try to understand and write down the different realities of people, as they are all true in some sense.” <- mmm…in my view postmod relational constructionism (pomoRC) is not saying this – this is more talk about subjectivity…pomoRC is talking about multiple community-based rationalities (& including [post-positivist or some other discourse of science] as one of these…

      • Lily says:

        “Hmm…so maybe I did not understand it correctly at all. I thought postpositivism and postmodernism really resulted in two opposing ways of looking at the power balance between researcher and object of research, but as Dian-Marie explains it, they can coincide as well. Robin, could you maybe explain a bit more?”

        • Robin says:

          Nice to see the discussion here. I think Dian Marie is right with here argument about the way power relations are viewed from a pomoRC perspective. In this blog I wanted to show how a postpositivist and a postmodernist view differ, but maybe I went a bit too far in that. The core idea is that from a postpositivist view there is a fixed subject-object power balance. From a pomoRC perspective it is rather argued that a subject-object power relation does not always have to be fixed in this way everywhere and at every time. Rather, it is possible that in some communities this subject-object power relation is indeed accepted, while in other communities the relational processes result in completely different relationships between the self and the other.

  4. Tim says:

    I don’t really see what the problem is when it comes to the power position of the researcher. I work as a consultant for a big Dutch consultancy company and indeed I do have some kind of power when I come into an organization, as I will tell them at the end of my inquiry what needs to be changed. However, they also want to give me this kind of power, as they will not pay me €1000,- a day for me to come up with the conclusion: you could think of that, but well, everybody might look at this differently.

    • Robin says:

      So you realize that you have power, then you must also be able to realize that you can use this power in different ways. If you indeed believe that there is one true solution out there, that you will be able to discover from what you have learned earlier in other organizations, then that’s fine. However, what a social constructionist would argue is that it is important to understand the different local realities of the people in an organization and that you as a researcher can use your power to give power to these different local realities. By discussing things with the people in an organization, a process starts in which they reflect and get to understand each other points of views, which can be much more useful than THE solution from the perspective of an outsider.

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